Waypoints

Aboard our traveling machines

June 1, 2007

Editor in Chief Thomas B. Haines spends considerably more time thinking about aviation than actually committing it.

We all have our own reasons for climbing aboard an airplane and ambling into the sky.

For some it's "work," as in "they pay me to do this?" For others it is recreation. But for nearly all of us — no matter where the paycheck comes from — it is for the pleasure and challenge of piloting an airplane, causing it to do what we want in the dynamic atmosphere.

One of the greatest aviation pleasures for me is simply traveling by general aviation airplane. I enjoy the utility of flying where I want when I want — my own schedule and my own route — except on occasion when air traffic control has its own ideas, but even then the reroutes are manageable. Cruising along through fair-weather skies offers a great time to think and reflect. For me, it's an escape — no e-mail, no deadlines, no crisis of the moment. A little weather here and there along the flight keeps the skills sharp.

My airplane, a Beechcraft Bonanza A36, is a traveling machine. It likes to get up and go. Although few airplanes can match the smooth and coordinated flight controls of a Bonanza, it's not a fun airplane to rack around the sky sightseeing down low. For that I sometimes dream of a two-place tailwheel airplane, one where the side of the cockpit folds down so I can hang my arm in the breeze. On warm summer evenings when the air is calm and the sky over the ridges to the west has begun to pick up the day's first shades of sunset orange, I eye the big hay field across the road from my house and wonder, what would the neighbors think if I came slipping in over the power lines in a Piper Cub or an Aeronca Champ and touched down along the fence row?

From there my thinking grows even bigger: Maybe I could convince the power company to bury the power lines. Maybe the farmer wouldn't mind if I simply began using his field as a landing strip — it's plenty long and flat enough. Maybe I could taxi back across the country road and tie the airplane down in my yard behind the garage. If I extended the roofline of the garage a little, I could have a canopy for the airplane. And then I could fly the 12 miles to the office every day at treetop level rather than driving, taxiing right onto AOPA's ramp a few yards from the front door.

Somewhere at about that point, reality elbows its way back into my consciousness, and I come to terms with the fact that the farmer isn't going to want me to track up his hay, and what about the years when he plants the field in corn — never mind the liability of an aircraft landing on his property? The power company isn't going to bury the lines unless I pay for it. The neighbors won't want the noise or commotion — although they're an easygoing bunch and a few airplane rides might cement that part of the deal. And, of course, the county and the state have rules and regulations about where you can and can't take off and land — at least without filling out a NASA Aviation Safety Reporting System form. They'd probably catch on if I sent one in every day.

Take a pill

As reality fully returns to me there on the front porch, I sometimes think I should take a pill and lie down before even considering the purchase of an additional airplane. It's not like I'm exactly wearing out the Bonanza. Although I probably fly more each year than the average general aviation pilot, my winged mistress goes for long periods of time without seeing daylight — but it's not for my lack of thinking about flying (see above!).

Even when I'm flying I'm thinking about flying. Thinking about the flight at hand is of course a good thing, but I also find my mind drifting onto other aviation subjects during those relaxing hours of cruising. During a recent flight to Florida, I was enjoying a tailwind across North Carolina and thinking about a letter I received from AOPA member Ron Yancey, of San Pablo, California.

Yancey forwarded some reflections on using a light general aviation airplane for traveling. It's a long passage, but I think you'll find it entertaining and insightful:

"It seems to me that for normal trips cross-country, where the automobile is used today, the sport plane provides an infinitely more pleasant means of transportation. Highways are now so crowded, and in the main so stripped of their former natural beauty, as to make motoring between important points a wearying job almost totally lacking in the pleasure that should accompany bowling along a country road. Happily this isn't true of cross-country flying, and it is difficult to see how it ever will be. The airplanes are so manifold that it seems unlikely that the sky will ever be crowded, however many people eventually take to flying. And while the billboard artist and the hotdog merchant pretty well manage to defile the country road, it doesn't seem likely that it will ever be profitable to paint signs on stationary balloons, nor will science ever devise, one trusts, means to rearrange the stars into advertising slogans.

"It will be this new freedom in travel, this spaciousness, this isolation, as well as a speed two or three times faster than motoring, which will win people to sport flying, it seems to me. One can carry along all the baggage one needs in even the lightest plane, and a companion as well. Exhilarated by flying, one arrives at the journey's end, not tired and dusty, but toned up by the jaunt. Flying requires no such concentrated manual labor as manipulating a motorcar in and out of traffic. Nor is there any of the mental fretting occasioned by rubbing fenders with hundreds of other automobiles over a lengthy drive. It seems to me that gradually these advantages will become apparent to the world at large, and then sport flying will be taken up on a large scale."

I admit that Yancey had me going there for a bit, but he followed the passage with attribution to Bruce Gould, who wrote those words in his book Sky Larking: The Romantic Adventure of Flying in 1929 (New York: Horace Liveright).

The similarities of nearly 80 years ago to today's transportation system are stunning. As I glanced at the Interstate 95 depiction on the Garmin GNS 530 moving map in my Bonanza's panel and then out the window at the four-lane highway snaking below me, I couldn't help but wonder what Bruce Gould might think today were he able to join me on a cross-country flight. Gould was a newspaper reporter and, in the 1920s and 1930s, the literary and aviation editor for the New York Evening Post. He and his wife, Beatrice Blackmar Gould, wrote plays and short stories together. From 1935 until their retirement in 1962, the couple edited the Ladies' Home Journal, boosting the once-struggling publication to the highest circulation of any magazine at the time. He died in 1989 at the age of 91 when general aviation was at one of its lowest points in history with regard to innovation and development.

Had Gould lived a bit longer, he might have glimpsed the impact that the global positioning system, new avionics systems, new airframe designs, and a modicum of product liability relief brought to general aviation in the 1990s and to the present. The highways of today are ever more crowded and ground transportation is so often still "a wearying job almost totally lacking in the pleasure that should accompany bowling along a country road." To date, no one has rearranged the stars into advertising messages, although we've launched a few constellations into orbit that deliver us navigation signals and weather data — and even in-cockpit entertainment.

Gould might still wonder, though, why these advantages — 80 years after he wrote his book — have not become apparent to the world at large and why "sport flying" hasn't been taken up on a large scale. Because although GA deliveries are up and the number of hours flown annually remains relatively steady, not many people use general aviation for traveling. There are many reasons, of course — mostly dealing with economics, the economics of ground and airline travel, and also the economics of GA.

However, as I motor along through clear, smooth air, by now over South Carolina, I can't agree more with Gould's premise that "the sport plane provides an infinitely more pleasant means of transportation."

E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.